No Passes Allowed
I have taught a course at Rollins for years called Writer's Studio. A class about the practice of writing, not a workshop course, it's designed to help participants think about the creative process: what is it? how does it happen? what is a creative practice? how do I nourish my creative practice? As part of establishing a writing practice and learning how art emerges out that practice, students are asked to write a minimum of 750 words a day, and each week they do an hour-long writing response to a prompt I give them. Since we're not a workshop, the emphasis is not on revising and shaping finished pieces, but on writing fast and getting real thoughts down on paper in an honest and powerful manner.
In class, then, they are asked to read aloud their responses to the previous prompt. Everyone reads. The idea is for the class to hold the space for students to take risks, be boring, test ideas, try new techniques, experiment with voice, and begin to feel what it's like to have their words spoken to an audience that is directed to give only positive response to the words they’ve have produced. Over the years, I've watched students gain the confidence to call themselves writers as a result of spending time in this safe haven of creativity.
But this semester, something kind of odd has happened.
Early on in the course, a student I called on to read said, "I'll take a pass today." For some reason, I said OK, wrote Pass down next to her name, and went on to the next student. The next week, of course, someone else requested a pass--no surprise since the option was now out there in our creative space. But this time I paused, looked at the student, and asked why. Thinking, I guess, that the pressure of having to explain would be enough to detour anyone else from veering from the explicit protocol of the course—everyone reads. But I hadn’t nipped this passing in the bud because the next week it happened again. Leah, a beautiful writer and attentive student, said, "I need to take a pass in reading tonight."
I took my glasses off and laid them on the table. (You know a lecture is coming when that happens.) I looked up at the whole class, and not at Leah who was sitting to my left, and said, "You don't get a pass, guys. It doesn't work that way, in here or in the real world of writing. You show up every day. You put your words on the page. And you offer your words back to the muse who has somehow caused those words to be filtered through your consciousness. When you're establishing a practice--any kind of practice--you don't get a pass."
This is a great group of students, all serious writers, and they listened to me politely, if a little sheepishly. But it was clear that I had not properly explained the importance of showing up every day with a sacrifice to the muse.
What happens when you take a pass? I asked. What's going on inside of you when you need to refrain from reading your words to this safe audience? Maybe you've written something very personal and you're afraid to reveal so much to the group. Or maybe you think what you wrote was boring and you don't want to admit that, yes, sometimes you are a real boring person. Maybe you didn't produce the minimum words required, and you don't want to reveal yourself to be a slacker. Or even worse, you don't want to reveal yourself to be less than dedicated to the process. You want to be a writer but you just haven't committed yet to the daily grind of acting like a writer. You will soon, though, when there is time. Or, in the worst case scenario, you left your notebook at home and you don't have your writing with you. This is probably not an accident on your part. At some level, you didn't want to bring your notebook to class, thinking that would be a legitimate excuse for not showing up in an authentic way.
But hear this: there is no legitimate excuse for not showing up in a authentic way. Ever. Any place. With anyone. And especially in a class that has given you the glorious opportunity to actually explore your authentic self without any negative consequences!
When you take a pass, you avoid facing your fearfulness, your vulnerability, your misunderstandings of the worth of your writing. And what you learn from facing these big feelings is truly the very heart of your best writing. These feelings are the potent energy that will rise into unique expression if you just say the words!
The joy of this class is that your fellow studio members are going to determine the worth of your words, and because of our established protocol, they are always going to accept them and encourage you to keep going. They will always find something good to note about what you have done on the page. They will honor your willingness to speak your truth and say what is in your heart. And every time they do that, your belief in the possibility that you have something good, or true, or beautiful to say is graciously presented to you. Your heart opens when you hear your words bouncing off the bodies of other people. Your confidence builds. You feel the rush of satisfaction knowing that you have expressed something concrete and real that came up out of you. You grow as a writer.
So from here on out: no passes allowed. Take a pass and you are passing on growing. You are saying to the universe, “No thanks, not today. I don’t feel like getting better today.” Don't do it. Don't shut yourself down. Let it all fly.
Left to our own, we all take passes in many arenas of our life, don't we? What area are you trying to grow in? Can you see ways that you are backing away from the real circumstances that will nudge your growth? Stop taking those passes and see how things begin to change for you.